Dressed to Kill (1946)

aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code / Prelude to Murder

2015 #200
Roy William Neill | 69 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Dressed to KillIn the seven-and-a-bit years between 31st March 1939 and 7th June 1946, there were a total of 14 films released starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. By coincidence rather than design, I’ve spent nearly eight years viewing and reviewing them all for this blog — so yes, it’s taken me a little longer to watch them than it did to make them, which is ridiculous, but there you go.

This final film in the series sees Holmes in pursuit of a criminal gang who are on the trail of three music boxes, and are prepared to kill to acquire them. The boxes were all made by a prisoner and contain coded messages which, when combined and decoded, will reveal the location of stolen Bank of England printing plates — a literal licence to print money. Well, apart from the licence bit, because it would be illegal. But you get what I mean.

The Rathbone Holmes series was only sporadically adapted from the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but this entry takes loose inspiration from several tales. The use of secret codes is reminiscent of The Dancing Men (previously the basis for The Secret Weapon), while the plot device of having to track down multiple identical items that hide something comes from The Six Napoleons (previously the basis for The Pearl of Death). I don’t know if that suggests there are only a few Doyle tales actually worth adapting, or if the makers of the series were running out of fresh ideas by this point.

There are also elements of A Scandal in Bohemia, the story most famous for featuring Irene Adler, aka The Woman, but screenwriters Frank Gruber and Leonard Lee have an unusual method of including it: Dressed for the occasionthe story is explicitly referenced in the film, Watson having just had it published; then the film’s villainess turns up, played by Patricia Morison, functioning effectively as an Adler stand-in — and using some tricks she learnt from reading Watson’s story! The series hasn’t featured Adler before, so why not just name this character Irene Adler, have her devise those tricks from her own imagination, and be done with? Who knows.

Dressed to Kill is an ending to the Rathbone/Bruce films only in the sense that it’s the last one, this not being an era of “series finales” or what have you. It isn’t among the top tier of Holmes adventures starring the pair, but it’s still an entertaining mystery. In some respects that’s a good summation of the series, and why they’ve endured in popularity for over 75 years: even when not at their very best, they remain enjoyable.

3 out of 5

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

aka Moriarty

2014 #106
Albert Parker | 85 mins | streaming | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English)

Sherlock Holmes, aka MoriartyAmerican actor William Gillette was the most iconic portrayer of Sherlock Holmes on stage, penning his own play (with permission from Conan Doyle) that he performed 1,300 times between 1899 and 1923. It was filmed in 1916, a feature long thought lost but announced as found in October 2014 (and to be released on disc by Flicker Alley this coming October — expect a review eventually). Before then, the only thing approaching a filmed record of that iconic interpretation of the Great Detective was this: a 1922 remake starring John Barrymore as the famed sleuth, originally released in the UK as Moriarty (possibly for legal reasons, possibly (according to David Stuart Davies in Holmes of the Movies) due to “the mediocrity of so many of the earlier Holmes films”).

This film was also considered lost, until elements were discovered in the ’70s — not the film itself, but original negatives “in which every take — not every sequence, but every take — were jumbled out of order” (as per William K. Everson’s programme notes for the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, via Wikipedia). These were painstakingly reassembled into something resembling the original film, although around 26 minutes are still missing. Nonetheless, the film remains completely followable: nothing important to our comprehension is missing, with some storytelling rough edges the only vague sign that anything may be amiss.

Said story diverges from the canon so much it’s liable to give any particularly canon-focused Sherlockians a conniption. It begins in Cambridge, with what many reviews call a “prologue”, usually preceded by an adjective such as “overlong”. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as the first act. There, a student, Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny), third in line to the throne of somewhere-or-other-in-Europe, has been accused of stealing from the university, but he claims innocence. His friend John Watson (Roland Young) recommends he seeks the assistance of a chap in his year, one Sherlock Holmes (Barrymore). Holmes and Wastson, 1922 styleYes, shades of 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn there are fewer CGI stained glass window knights here, though.

Holmes quickly uncovers the real culprit, another student by the name of Forman Wells (the screen debut of William “The Thin Man” Powell, looking ever so young). However, Wells is acting under duress, forced to commit the theft by Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), an obviously evil-looking fellow who sits at the centre of a spider’s web of criminal activity. Holmes confronts Moriarty in Wells’ stead, to little effect, the criminal genius swatting the student away as one would a fly. Undeterred, our young sleuth commits to stopping Moriarty as his life’s very purpose.

That and finding a girl he saw once and instantly fell in love with.

Meanwhile, Prince Alexis is informed that his two brothers have died in a car accident, making him heir to the throne, and so he can no longer marry Rose Faulkner, a British commoner he’d been courting. Rose is the sister of Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster), who just so happens to be the girl Sherlock fell for. When she learns of the split, Rose commits suicide.

And that’s just the so-called prologue. I’m loath to explain the whole plot of a movie, but the tale spun here is actually somewhat intricate. Personally, I thought it was quite a good yarn. It’s flawed in the telling — it’s not particularly Holmesian, and there are far too many overlong title cards (Everson calls it “one of the ‘talkiest’ silents”) — but I don’t hold with criticisms that it’s slow paced, or that the lack of any real mystery is a problem. Sherlock Holmes tales are remembered as “detective stories” because that was his profession, Sherlock Holmes in lurveand in many respects they led to the abundance of crime-solving fiction that fills bookstores and TV schedules to this day, but there’s a reason most of Conan Doyle’s stories are prefixed with “The Adventure of” rather than “The Fiendishly Difficult to Solve Mystery of”.

Anyway, after the Cambridge to-do the film jumps forward some years, to find Holmes a respected detective residing at 221 Baker Street (I guess he also acquired 221a and knocked through or something). Moriarty has still eluded him, but the revival of some matters from his student days are about to change that. Turns out Alice has in her possession some letters from Alexis to Rose, which she intends to publish to ruin him in revenge for her sister’s death. Goodness knows what’s in these letters; the ’20s equivalent of sexting, presumably. Alexis attempts to hire Holmes to retrieve the letters, but Holmes isn’t particularly inclined to do so because he rather agrees with the position of the love of his life (not that he’s seen her since that one time they bumped into each other years earlier). However, Moriarty also wants the letters, in order to blackmail Alexis, so Holmes takes the case so as to get closer to his nemesis.

You’ll notice a lack of Watson in most of this outline. He’s rather sidelined, unfortunately. Some would prefer this to the comical treatment he suffered at the hands of Nigel Bruce, but your mileage may vary. I think Watson’s often one of the most undervalued characters in literature, a very capable fellow who’s usually overshadowed by his grandstanding friend. There’s nothing wrong with Young’s performance, there’s just not much of it.

If I can just focus on the middle distance...Barrymore makes for a solid, if perhaps unremarkable, Holmes. He has the right look for the role, and makes good use of the same staring-contemplatively-into-the-distance furrowed-brow expression that Basil Rathbone would employ a couple of decades later. He has down the precociousness of student Holmes, which develops into a kind of righteousness when older. He’s not as stand-offish and borderline unlikeable as some interpretations of the character, nor as affable as others. As I say, he sits in the middle, doing nothing wrong but not getting a chance to mark himself out either.

The thing that does go terribly wrong, however, is the romantic subplot. Even if you set aside that such palaver doesn’t fit with the traditional Holmes character, this version is unconvincingly handled. Not only has Holmes apparently spent years pining after a girl he met once (it’s unclear why the Great Detective hasn’t been able to find her in all that time), but when he does meet her there’s no chemistry whatsoever. According to Fritzi at Movies Silently in her review, we should attribute the fault here to Dempster. I see no reason to disagree. Apparently Barrymore so disliked his co-star that he refused to perform the final scene with her, which would certainly explain the none-too-subtle way the actress’ face goes unseen at that point.

Young Mr Powell probably gets the best part, in particular a scene in a cab on the way to Moriarty’s lair where we learn his tragic backstory. The young thin manHe crops up in the years-later narrative too, used by Holmes to go undercover in the house where Alice is being held hostage by some of Moriarty’s many villainous associates. A major part of Holmes’ plan hinges on him turning up at these villains’ house, telling them what to do, and them obeying him. That this method succeeds is not due to Holmes’ considerable skill, but more due to the screenwriters’ lack of it.

Von Seyffertitz gives a very good Moriarty, though does err on the side of OTT. In part this is his look: I thought they had perhaps gone a little far with the make-up, turning him almost into a caricature of a villain, but having Googled the actor I think that it may mainly be his face… Still, what a perfect face for playing villains! Naming the film after him for the UK isn’t wholly inappropriate, especially as his role is expanded from Gillette’s play (the prologue confrontation being the main addition) and one of the throughlines is Holmes’ focus on apprehending him. It would certainly differentiate it from all of the other films called simply Sherlock Holmes.

The 1922 version isn’t the best film to bear that moniker, but nor is it the worst. I don’t think it’s a great interpretation of Holmes, but I found it to be a pretty entertaining adventure in its own right. I’d even quite like to see the plot rejigged (and the holes ironed out) to make it more truly Holmesian. Even having enjoyed the film, I must say how entertainingly dismissive I found Everson’s notes: he thinks that “one of the most painstaking recovery jobs ever […] quite overshadows the fact that the film itself Moriarty vs Holmeshardly seems worth such devotion except on a purely academic level.” He goes on to say that “it must be one of the blandest misuses of potentially exciting material ever,” that “it literally has no highlights,” that it “has no pictorial style of its own,” that Barrymore “clearly lends his profile to Holmes, and not much more,” that “if it is a major find, it is also a major disappointment.” Ooh, burn. (The whole thing is worth a read.)

Now, with the discovery of the Gillette film, one wonders if this Sherlock Holmes is destined to become even more of a curio than it already is. It’s not wholly undeserving of such a fate: it’s not bad and I found it solidly entertaining, but one for Barrymore fans and Holmes completists only.

3 out of 5

Sherlock Holmes, aka Moriarty, is available on YouTube here.

This review is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

2015 #74
Roy William Neill | 62 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Pursuit to AlgiersAfter a fun opening where Holmes and Watson have to solve the world’s most obvious riddle (naturally, Watson is completely oblivious to there even being a riddle), the original dynamic duo are tasked with escorting the heir to the throne of somewhere-or-other back to his homeland, thwarting assassination attempts as they go.

In his production notes on the Optimum DVD release, Sherlockian Richard Valley describes the 12th film in the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes series as “the runt of the litter” — which it is — though he also declares that it “has its own peculiar charm… If it’s not in the same league as Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or The Scarlet Claw, neither is it a waste of time.” Of that I am less convinced.

Ostensibly, Sherlock Holmes stories are detective mysteries. In execution, they’re as often as not about the adventures of our heroes as much as they’re about the ins-and-outs of a case. The mystery is the glue that holds it all together, though. For about the first half, Pursuit to Algiers puts its pawns in place (getting Holmes, Watson and their charge on the boat to Algiers) and sets up its mystery: who is the assassin? About halfway through, Holmes and Watson stand around and very handily list all of the suspects… which just so happen to include pretty much every supporting character. So far, so good. However, it’s only a few minutes later that we actually find out the identity of the guilty party. If the mystery is the glue, then for me this is where the film comes unstuck.

So, Holmes has found out the identity of the assassins. Does he come up with an ingenious scheme to unmask them? Does he battle them and throw them overboard? Does he do anything at all about it? No. Instead, the rest of the film descends (further) into farce as Holmes lets the villains carry on with two or three assassination attempts, Time for a cracker joke?each of which he thwarts last-minute in sometimes amusing fashion. That’s not fundamentally a poor premise for an adventure comedy, I don’t think, but it doesn’t work for Sherlock Holmes. I mean, if you’re trying to prevent someone from being assassinated, why would you let the assassins carry on?! A last-minute twist reveals a sort of motivation, but it’s not a particularly convincing one in my book.

Even leaving the plot implausibility aside, I didn’t feel there was much else to recommend here. There’s altogether too much of Bruce buffooning around; there’s a half-arsed subplot about a jewel theft, seemingly tacked on so you could argue that there is a mystery in the film’s second half; and just generally, I didn’t think it hung together all that well.

Still, in a series where you’re churning out two or three a year, you’re allowed a couple of duds. Pursuit to Algiers is not completely without merit, but it’s certainly my least favourite Rathbone Holmes so far.

2 out of 5

Pursuit to Algiers is on TCM UK today at 3pm and tomorrow at 1:45pm.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1981)

aka
Приключения Шерлока Холмса и доктора Ватсона: Собака Баскервилей
Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sobaka Baskerviley
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles

2015 #14
Igor Maslennikov | 146 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

The Hound of the BaskervillesSherlock Holmes has appeared in more films than any other fictional character (yep, even those Marvel ones that are everywhere), which also means that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective has been portrayed by a staggering number of actors. “Who’s the best?” debates usually settle around Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and, these days, Benedict Cumberbatch, though there are ardent fans of Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Robert Downey Jr… I could go on. In certain rarified circles, however, the “Sherlockian’s Sherlock” is, believe it or not, a Russian: Vasily Livanov, who starred in five popular (in their homeland) Russian miniseries/TV movies between 1979 and 1986 that some regard as definitive adaptations. We even gave him an MBE for them in 2006, so I guess he’s state-recognised.

The most famous Holmes adventure of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was the subject of the third series, a two-part feature-length adaptation. (So yes, technically it’s not a film, but it’s the length of a film and it’s ever-so filmicly made, so I’m counting it.) The story, if you don’t know it, sees Devon gent Sir Charles Baskerville dying and his Canadian heir, Henry Baskerville (Nikita Mikhalkov), coming to England to inherit the estate. However, Sir Charles’ physician, Dr Mortimer (Evgeny Steblov), fears the old chap was murdered, and that it’s somehow connected to an ancient legend of a dog-like beast that roams the moors and torments the Baskerville family. Who better to investigate such phenomenon, and the potential threat to the new Sir Baskerville’s life, than famed detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr Watson.

Mr Sherlock HolmesAs many a Holmes fan will know, Baskervilles is not the best choice to get a handle on an actor’s interpretation of Holmes. Written by Doyle in the period after he’d killed Holmes off because he was tired of writing him, but before he later brought him back to life (as it were), presumably the author was still a bit bored with his creation, because Holmes disappears for a good chunk of the tale — in this adaptation, cited by many as the most faithful yet made, he’s in roughly the first and last half-hours, leaving a 72-minute stretch in the middle where he doesn’t appear at all. From what we do see of him, Livanov portrays a nicely understated Holmes. Clearly fiercely intelligent, but without the terseness of Cumberbatch’s version or the somewhat-jolly-hockey-sticks take of Rathbone. I’m compelled to get hold of the rest of the series to see what else he had to offer. (Sadly, only Baskervilles has reached UK DVD, but English-friendly imports are available. It’s also been released on Blu-ray, but I believe without English subtitles.)

The weight of the tale falls on Dr Watson, played here by Vitaly Solomin, who starred alongside Livanov in all his adventures. His is an excellent version of the character. Hopefully the Nigel Bruce-inspired image of Watson as a bumbling, useless sidekick has faded now, thanks to a couple of decades of strong interpretations from the likes of Edward Hardwicke, Ian Hart and Martin Freeman, but when this was produced it was presumably still de rigueur. Faithful to the original stories, however, Solomin’s Watson is highly competent; not expert at applying Holmes’ incredible deductive methodology, but nonetheless capable of maintaining an investigation in Holmes’ absence. Whatever Livanov’s merits, I’d happily watch the rest of the adaptations for Solomin’s Watson.

Dr Watson and Sir HenrySeveral other cast members manage to be both faithful to the novel and different to how their characters are usually depicted on screen. For instance, Dr Mortimer is usually played as an older gent, but is quite young in the novel — this is a rare (the only?) instance of that being followed. It’s the first time I’ve seen him played as being a bit shifty and suspicious, too. It benefits the storytelling here, because there really aren’t many suspects — it’s abundantly clear whodunnit, even if you don’t know, because there are no other options! Perhaps most memorable from the supporting cast is “internationally acclaimed actor/director” Nikita Mikhalkov as Henry Baskerville. The role is usually played as young, handsome, keen and brave (in the Rathbone version, Richard Greene even gets top billing in the role, and his incarnation is at the centre of a played-up romantic subplot). Here, Henry is a little older, prone to drinking, readily amused in a larger-than-life fashion, frequently baffled by events, somewhat cowardly, and most often used for comic relief.

There’s certainly a stronger strand of humour than I recall from either the book or any previous adaptation (though I’ve not seen the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore comedy version, which one would hope is funnier), but it’s all texture with Sir Henry rather than a narrative driving force. It also plays down the supernatural or Gothic side of things, which other versions tend to ramp up — the Rathbone film and the 2002 BBC TV movie both insert a seance sequence, even, which works so well that I’d forgotten it wasn’t actually in the novel. It’s a good addition partly for the atmosphere, but also for playing up the sense of community amongst the small band of characters. Here, everyone feels very isolated and rarely seen — there are even scenes where they’re surprised to actually run into one another. Holmes solves the caseThere’s more of an emphasis on people spying on each other suspiciously, which at least is rather appropriate to a murder mystery.

Indeed, I suppose this adaptation plays the story mostly as a detective mystery, if that’s not too obvious a thing to observe. Hound is far from the strongest mystery in the canon, mind, especially as presented here, with the the list of suspects seriously depleted by that absence of community. On the bright side, it makes up for it by having the ultimate revelation seem like proper detective work by Holmes. Normally the reveal hinges on him happening to spot a telling painting, an explanation that is implausible enough even without the element of happenstance. Here, the painting merely suggests a motive and a new line of enquiry to prove that theory. Nonetheless, the final summary contains a goodly number of “I don’t know, Watson”-type answers to dangling motivations/practicalities/etc. Anyone after a solid murder mystery, rather than a detective-led adventure, should look elsewhere.

The film itself is very well made. There’s some gorgeous cinematography by Dmitri Dolinin and Vladimir Ilyin; in particular, the cold morning on which Dr Mortimer examines Sir Charles’ body, mists drifting around some of the village houses, and anything on the moor in evening light, like when Watson finally finds Holmes. Also, just generally, it’s often very filmically shot — a shallow depth of field can pay dividends. The Russian city used as a double for Baker Street and its surroundings doesn’t look the least bit like Victorian London, though in fairness they’ve done their best to hide that, Yep, that's totally Britainincluding scattering iconic red VR post boxes around willynilly. The Russian countryside probably doesn’t look very much like Dartmoor either, but its qualities work for the story: very desolate, barren, bare trees, waterlogged dirt tracks for roads, rubble strewn around, the buildings rundown… All very atmospheric for a Gothic horror-tinged mystery, and far superior to the picture-postcard look of some adaptations.

Sonically, Vladimir Dashkevich’s score is succinctly described as quirky, with a main theme that’s very pompously British (apparently based on a familiar piece from the BBC World Service, which the Russian audience would therefore immediately identify with Britishness), but graduating to some quite contemporary riff-y guitar stuff later on.

(Unfortunately, the UK DVD is a little messy. For all the lovely film-ness of much of the PQ, there’s occasionally some nasty video/digital artifacting. Similarly, the subtitles are mostly fine but with sporadic lapses. A few lines are missed, and homophonic substitutions abound: “here” for “hear” (several times), “stake” for “steak”, “to” for “too”, and the second vowel in “Sheldon” changes a few times to boot. Shame.)

Russian Hound of the Baskervilles UK DVD from Mr BongoThe Hound of the Baskervilles has been filmed far too many times (a quick search of IMDb throws up a couple of dozen versions, for starters), which makes it tricky for any version to stand out from the crowd. This one picks up bonus points for reportedly being the most faithful of them all, backing that up with some strong performances, atmospheric locations and classy direction by the series’ regular helmsman, Igor Maslennikov. It’s not perfect, but then I can’t think of an adaptation of Baskervilles I’ve seen that is. Is it the best Baskervilles? It depends what exactly you want in the mix, but I think you’d have to say it’s a contender.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.

The Woman in Green (1945)

2014 #111
Roy William Neill | 65 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Woman in GreenBasil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes starred in films which, although they typically involve murder, are best described as “adventures”. The series’ 11th film, The Woman in Green, is one of the few — perhaps the only one — that could genuinely be described as dark and grim.

In a case with overtones of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer is murdering young woman and severing their forefinger as a trophy. The police are baffled — and even the Great Detective can’t offer much help. A lead emerges when the daughter of a widower catches him burying a forefinger. However, it soon becomes apparent that Moriarty (Henry Daniell) is involved, running a cruel moneymaking scheme.

Using elements from multiple Conan Doyle stories, including The Adventure of the Empty House, screenwriter Bertram Millhauser weaves a tale where it seems Moriarty may have finally outwitted our hero, leading to a remarkably effective climax with a hypnotised Holmes at the villains’ mercy. Moriarty’s plan is genuinely despicable, with the initial murders being entirely incidental to his end goal. It gives the film a subtly different tone to the rest of the series. Holmes still exhibits ingenious methods of detection, and there’s a comedy bit for Nigel Bruce’s Watson too, but behind it sits an odious undercurrent of contemptible crime. Indeed, put Moriarty’s plan in a drama today and I think people would still consider it particularly abhorrent. It’s occasionally startling for a ’40s production.

Hypnotised HolmesThe evil is carried off with aplomb by Daniell. Reportedly a cold actor to work with, he chills on the screen too. This is a man you can believe would carry out such a scheme without a single twang to his conscience. His comeuppance, even with its surprising finality, is welcomed. The titular woman, played by Hillary Brooke, is one of Moriarty’s cohorts, posing as the ‘girlfriend’ of the aforementioned widower in order to set him up. The film is of course in black & white, so we can’t see what colour she’s wearing, and no one ever refers to it — even when they’re hunting for her based on looks alone. I guess someone thought it was an evocative title nonetheless.

Starting with a particularly vile series of murders that mask an even more detestable scheme and genuine peril for our hero, I can imagine some fans would find The Woman in Green to be too big a step outside the Rathbone Holmes comfort zone. For me, however, these elements mark it out as one of the series’ best instalments.

4 out of 5

The House of Fear (1945)

2014 #11
Roy William Neill | 66 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

The House of FearAdapted very loosely from the early Conan Doyle story The Five Orange Pips, this outing for Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson sees them summoned to Scotland to investigate the suspicious deaths of the members of a club, where each killing is preceded by an ominous postal warning.

Previous commenters on this fine establishment have flagged up The House of Fear as among the best of the Rathbone films, including one declaring it his “outright favourite”. I have to say, I didn’t like it that much. That said, something has given me the impression it’s considerably better than the short story that inspired it; though there’d be disagreement from Doyle, who ranked it among his 12 favourite Holmes adventures, and Mark Campbell of The Pocket Essential Sherlock Holmes, where the story rates 5-out-of-5. Either way, the film version presents an intriguing mystery, with some good moments — including, if you like Watson’s comedy bits, a mercifully not-drawn-out skit with an owl.

However, it felt to me like it wasn’t really going anywhere until Holmes suddenly figured it all out at the end. Certainly he draws on clues encountered along the way, but even then most of those come late on. Detecting by candlelightWhile the club having seven members does mean there’s a fair few suspects, it also means it takes a long time to get through them all being bumped off! It doesn’t sink so low as to be deemed repetitive, but does border it.

Not among my personal favourites of the Rathbone Holmeses, then, but not without its merits.

3 out of 5

Valley of Fear (1983)

2011 #64
Warwick Gilbert, Alex Nicholas & Di Rudder | 48 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Australia / English | U

Valley of FearI don’t recall how exactly I came across these animated Sherlock Holmes adaptations starring the voice of Peter O’Toole as the eponymous detective, or how I came to decide to view all of them, but it’s been almost four years since I reviewed the first… and three years since I reviewed the third. Now, finally, I get to the final episode. Such is the erraticism of using LOVEFiLM. (At least I have an excuse for my dawdling here — my incredibly slow viewing of all the Rathbone/Bruce Holmses is entirely my own tardiness.)

This series started decently for me, with a moderately promising adaptation of The Sign of Four, but then slid gradually downhill to an atrocious version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Valley of Fear isn’t as bad as that, but nor does it represent a massively significant increase in quality.

The negatives of the previous films still remain, primarily the weak ’80s TV animation. It’s not as badly designed as the bright-and-colourful version of Baskervilles, at least. O’Toole’s performance is nothing to write home about either. The story is perhaps the least-well-known of the four Holmes novels, and while it has its moments — mainly in clever deduction, often the best bit of any Holmes tale — this version is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on that fact.

Having quite liked the first of these adaptations that I saw, it’s a shame the other three haven’t lived up even to those expectations (it was only a three-star effort, after all). Ah well.

2 out of 5

Valley of Fear featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2011, which can be read in full here.

The Baskerville Curse (1983)

2008 #25
Eddy Graham | 67 mins | DVD | U / G

The Baskerville CursePeter O’Toole is Sherlock Holmes (well, his voice) once again in this animated Conan Doyle adaptation from the ’80s (see also my reviews of two others, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet). Of course, this is an adaptation of that perennially popular Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and as such O’Toole barely features. A shame, as he’s the only half decent thing in this mess.

As I’ve previously expressed, The Hound of the Baskervilles is not my favourite Holmes story, though it has its moments and there have been some enjoyable screen versions. Unfortunately, this pointlessly renamed offering retains all of the original’s faults but loses most of the best bits, despite wasting time on train journeys, telegram writing and pointless flashbacks to things we saw just minutes earlier. The animation is poor, even for a production of this level, with dire character design and a total lack of atmosphere (it opens with jolly music over views of primary-coloured countryside!) There are further flaws, but there’s no point wasting any more time going through them. I can only hope that the final entry in this series, The Valley of Fear, will be closer in quality to the other two instalments.

In retrospect, I’m certain I underrated the 1939 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I’m equally certain that I shall have no such regrets over this lame attempt.

1 out of 5

The Baskerville Curse featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.

A Study in Scarlet (1983)

2007 #97
Ian Mackenzie & Alex Nicholas | 48 mins | DVD | U

A Study in ScarletPeter O’Toole is again the voice of the famous sleuth in this disappointing animated adaptation of the first Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The adaptation is faithful to the original novel’s structure (sadly, as it’s a somewhat bizarre one, and ripe for a more interesting interpretation), but loses any elements pertaining to Holmes and Watson’s first meeting. The animation seems more basic than the other entry in this particular series that I’ve seen, and O’Toole’s performance is flatter. The rest of the cast don’t fare any better. The story itself isn’t a bad one, but after being pleasantly surprised by The Sign of Four, I just found this to be disappointing.

2 out of 5

The Sign of Four (1983)

2007 #83
Ian Mackenzie & Alex Nicholas | 47 mins | DVD | U

The Sign of FourA slightly unusual one to review, this: it’s a 49-minute animated Sherlock Holmes adaptation from the ’80s, one of four in this particular series. But, as best I can tell from IMDb, it’s not specifically TV-based, and it does feature the voice of Peter O’Toole. Vocally he makes for a good Holmes, though the character design could be a little better. I can’t recall the original story well enough to comment on this as an adaptation, but it’s a decent mystery that’s well explained. The animation is not bad; certainly no worse than most kids’ TV animation from the ’80s and ’90s, and better than the flat Flash-animated stuff of today. A solid production.

3 out of 5